Holly Robinson Peete on overlooking her daughter's ADHD while 'hyper-focused' on her son's autism: 'I kind of failed her a little bit'

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Holly Robinson Peete opens up about her daughter Ryan's ADHD diagnosis and the lessons she's learned from advocating for her kids. (Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Holly Robinson Peete opens up about her daughter Ryan's ADHD diagnosis and the lessons she's learned from advocating for her kids. (Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

From the moment she became a mother, Holly Robinson Peete has been using her platform to advocate on behalf of the family she shares with former NFL star Rodney Peete, most notably in raising awareness for autism causes after her eldest son, Rodney Jr., was diagnosed at age 3. But it's Rodney Jr.'s twin sister, Ryan, who has inspired Robinson Peete's work with the More to ADHD campaign as October's Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month comes to a close. 

Now 24 years old, Ryan was in her teens when she was diagnosed, though her struggle to focus was long written off as a personality quirk. Here, she and Robinson Peete — a mom of four — open up about their experience with the condition and their family life as a whole.

Holly, what ADHD symptoms did you notice in Ryan — or was her diagnosis a complete surprise?

Holly Robinson Peete: Well, I think I was hyper-focused on her twin brother's autism early on in their lives, and so Ryan became the twin that I didn't necessarily have to worry about. So I kind of, in all honesty and transparency, pushed her stuff aside, because I just thought the stuff that I saw — her inability to focus and some of her attention issues and then some social issues — I saw those and just thought, Oh, that's just Ryan or Ryan's just quirky or Ryan's this, instead of really looking to see how these were all things that she could not help. That was something that I missed. I really did miss a lot of these signs, so we didn't get her diagnosis until she was about 14, which is fairly late. Some people don't get diagnosed 'til they're adults, but for me — being an advocacy person and advocating so much for her twin brother — I just feel like I kind of failed her a little bit because I did miss those signs. 

Ryan, now that you've been diagnosed and are now a young adult, what's helped you cope with your ADHD?

Ryan Peete: The biggest thing that's helped me is adjusting my routine to cater to my ADHD. I'm a very big early riser; I'll make sure to get up, like, an hour or two before I need to get ready. So I make sure I have enough space to process the day and get my stuff together. Exercise has been very helpful, and I go on a lot of long walks whenever I feel very wound up inside. The more I've just adjusted my daily routine to cater to my brain being a little bit more spacy and stuff, it's all been very helpful for me. 

HRP: And the cool thing is, everybody's different, right? So everybody's gonna have different treatments. And the More to ADHD website is so resourceful. I wish we had something like that when Ryan was younger and it might've given us some direction. I think that's the best news for anybody who's getting an ADHD diagnosis, or who thinks they might have one or need one, or has a child with ADHD, because everybody's treatment is different, whatever route you decide to go. But I love that Ryan has really organized different ways to organize her thoughts in her life; she worked so hard on it. And then when you have a group of people around you that know what ADHD is, they adjust to you and they accept you for who you are. They accept your neurodiversity in this world, and I think that's also very important. 

What has your parenting journey taught you, especially given your advocacy?

HRP: It's just taught me to be super-patient and to listen to my kids and really watch their journey. You always want to protect your kids, but you also have to listen to them. So just balancing that — advocating for them, listening to them, parenting them, trying to steer them in the right way...

The thing I've learned the most is patience and understanding and empathy. I never knew anything about autism before I became a parent. I never knew anything about ADHD before I became a parent. These are things that [are] a learning curve for parents, too. So we as moms and dads have to be open to learning new things. I think sometimes in certain communities, we tend to feel like we know what's best. I'll speak for the African American community: A lot of times we don't like to talk about mental things; mental health is stigmatized. We have to break out of that because what we end up doing is a disservice to our children by not either getting them diagnosed or even trying to find out what it is that they're struggling with. Sometimes [we just say,] "Well, he's bad," or "He doesn't do this" or "He's lazy." These are labels that we'll throw on our kids, but there might be something really behind that that we need to look deeper into. 

If you think that there's something that's not right, you're great at calling it out — for instance, the recent situation in which two of your sons weren't allowed to board their flight. As a mom, how do you empower your children to speak out for themselves?

HRP: Well, you know, they see their mama always out there running stuff and making things happen, so they get that. But they also, because of that, will tend to sort of pull back a little bit. They might not be as aggressive as I am. 

A perfect example is when my boys were at the Air Canada counter. We were talking to them at the same time ... the whole family's on the phone trying to help them advocate. I kept saying stuff like, "Tell them your mom's there doing a movie and you're visiting." He didn't want to go to, "Oh, my mom..." He was like, "Mom, there's one thing — I've never had show my credit card for any flight in my whole life. They're not explaining to me what this is and I don't understand." 

And then when [airline staff] kind of walked away from him and didn't give him any kind of accommodations or rebook them, it was hard, but it was an interesting life lesson in how to manage people when they're disrespectful or they're rude to you — how to pivot. So he learned a lot that day. I mean, mainly their feelings were hurt, but more than anything else, they understood that these kinds of things happen and how to deal with them. So I think it's always live and learn with kids. You know, they've got to fall and have moments where they are disrespected and treated certain kind of ways so that they know how to respond. 

I normally ask parents this, but Ryan, since you're here, what is your mom's hard-and-fast rule that the four of you know not to cross? Is cleaning your plate, making your bed, saying please and thank you...

RP: [Laughs] Like, which one? ... All of the above. 

HRP: I'll answer that since she's struggling. I just want them to clean up after themselves in the kitchen. Clean up after yourself! Like, there's no magical dishwasher, fairy dust won't dry it. That's all! I don't need you to clean up for me; just clean up after yourselves.

RP: It's like that, and then also my mom gets on me a lot about being very spacy and taking a lot of time to get my thoughts out. ... As I've labeled my ADHD diagnosis, she's been a little bit more gracious about it but still gets on me all the time about it. And I keep having to remind her like, "Mom, please be patient with me."

Holly, the youngest of your four kids, is 16. With the pandemic and everything, you may have other ones still living at home, but are you and Rodney preparing yourselves for empty-nester life?

HRP: Yeah, the pandemic kind of threw a little wrench in the whole empty-nest vibe, for sure. So I don't know if we'll ever, ever, ever really be empty-nesters until they get married, maybe. But yeah, we're really a couple of years from officially being empty-nesters. He's got a year and a half of high school and then that's it. We have big plans. We want to travel the world some more and we have lots of things we want to do; we dream about it all the time. But we're a very close family, so I could see us kind of hanging [out] with each other for a while. 

I have to ask about your dad, Matt Robinson, being the original Gordon on Sesame Street. The kids are grown now, but are you a big Sesame Street family because of that connection?

HRP: Oh yeah — that's our legacy. My dad started that show over 50 years ago. I don't know if my kids really get or understand how big [of a deal that is] — 

RP: I do.

HRP: You do? Because it was during their lifetime, but it was also when I was 5, my dad came to me to tell me he was starting this new show and it took place on a city block and there was going to be a 8-foot bird and a man in a trashcan and something that ate cookies all the time. And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, good luck with that." Like, I didn't even think about it being something that would still be here today and as fresh and as amazing as ever. So I'm super-proud of that in our legacy as a family; we love that. And I did get a chance to go back for the 50th anniversary and try to nail that one line that I blew 50-something years ago.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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